Sunday, 21 July 2013

Mr Grey's grey plant


Greyia radlkoferi in the plant family Greyiaceae has greyish leaves, thank goodness. Plant names sometimes mislead or misinform but this one is pretty much on the money, albeit for the wrong reason.

The genus and family name come from Sir George Grey, a chap with a fortuitous surname and an Australian connection. He was born in Portugal but in 1837 sailed to Cape Town, then Australia, in The Beagle, the boat that had earlier taken Charles Darwin to the same exotic locations with momentous results.

He secured a variety of diplomatic posts around the world, becoming Governor of South Australia in 1841 before moving to New Zealand to become High Commissioner in 1845. He was later Governor of the Cape Colony in Africa. Where ever he lived he was a keen naturalist and sent plant material back to Kew Gardens, including I presume some of this distinctive grey plant. He also took an interest in local culture and was a strong advocate for education.

While highly skilled and intelligent, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography he "fell short of greatness for want of that power of self-control and detachment which might have enabled him to recognize and correct his mistakes". Ouch!

And who then is Radlkof, whose name doesn't even hint at the plant it adorns? He was a professor at the Botanical Museum in Munich, so presumably honoured for his contributions to botany more generally than for his link to this charming grey plant.


What none of these names tell you though is that in July there are brilliant red flowers, responsible for one of its local common names in Swaziland, the Woolly Bottlebrush.  The Woolly (South African) Bottlebrush comes form the mountains of KwaZulu-Natal and Swaziland, in South Africa, where it grows among rocks on stream banks, and one of its local names translates as Dassie's Ear. The dassie is a guinea-pig-like animal with woolly ears.

In the Royal Botanic Gardens it's a scraggy shrub and a the moment its leaves are almost as red as its flowers as they turn late autumnal and drop.


It has a close relative grown more commonly in at least southern African gardens, Greyia sutherlandii. Mr Sutherland was a Scottish doctor who worked in South Africa in the nineteenth century. The leaves of Sutherland's species are less woolly, or dassie-ear-like, underneath. You can find this one as well in the Melbourne Gardens and if you time travel back to the nineteenth century, in lots of botanic gardens around the world due to its ease of cultivation and drought tolerance.

There is only one other species in the genus, Gregyia flanaganii. Mr Flanagan was a South African born collector and grower of plants. Unlike the other two species, named after exotic botanists, this one retains its leaves in winter.

Mr Grey's family (Greyiaceae) is sometimes merged into another plant family, the Melianthaceae, or according to Jenny Tonkin in the Horticultural Flora of South-eastern Australia also Sapindaceae. We stick with the separate families here at Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne. I'm not sure I have any concept of what the Greyiaceae is or what makes it distinct, but there you go. It only has one genus, named after Grey. The species are variably grey but all have startlingly red flowers.


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